The Truman Show Structure Breakdown
Once again, I partnered with Podcast 241, this time for an analysis of The Truman Show. So checkout the podcast and read my breakdown below.
As always, these breakdowns contain SPOILERS, and are only recommended if you've already seen the movie. You can check my introduction to these breakdowns, to get an overview of my process and philosophy.
Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below!
Director: Peter Weir
Writers: Andrew Niccol
Release Date: 1998
Runtime: 103 minutes
Movie Level Goals
External: Discover the Truth
SUCCESS | FAILURE | MIXED
Relationship Goal: Be with Lauren
IMPLIED SUCCESS | FAILURE | MIXED
Internal Goal: Overcome his fear
SUCCESS | FAILURE | MIXED
Observation #1: Double Climax of Act 1
Act 1 has a few interesting elements. The first is the inciting incident(s). There are two things that happen to Truman that begin to make him doubt certain aspects of his own reality. The first happens very early, before the 4-minute mark, when the light labeled “Sirius” falls from the dome ceiling. By itself, this event doesn’t perturb Truman too much, and later on the radio explains the light as having fallen from an airplane. The bigger event, just after the 15-minute mark, is the arrival of Truman’s father. It does rock Truman’s status quo, as he asks his mother about his father, swears he saw him, etc. However, for purposes of the plot, it’s not the arrival of his father that matters most. In fact, Truman does very little to try to track down if the man was indeed his father (by talking to the police or checking homeless shelters, for example). What has a more lasting impact for the plot is the fact that strangers appear out of nowhere and hustle this mysterious figure onto a bus and away from Truman. The combination of the falling light and the strangers, primes Truman for the events of the Act I climax. The Act I Climax itself is also a little unusual. A few scenes after the inciting incident, Truman reminisces about meeting Lauren in high school (holding her red sweater), and the “Truman Show” takes this as a moment to introduce its watchers (and us) to the storyline of Truman’s lost romance through an extended flashback. As the flashback occurs, it has not been woven into the mysterious events of the first 15-minutes of the movie, so these plotlines seem separate. The end of the flashback functions as the first of two climaxes of Act 1–Lauren and Truman go down to the beach, but Lauren’s father kidnaps her and spins a tale of Lauren being both mentally ill and a “slut” (“You’re not the first boyfriend she’s brought down here”) in order to undercut Lauren’s claim that Truman’s world is a fiction. This event is certainly “climactic,” and as the flashback ends, we understand the link between the two plotlines. The next day, on his way to work, the car radio goes haywire, and Truman hears the behind the scenes instructions to cast and crew and realizes they seem to be talking about him. This second climax launches us immediately into Act 2 as Truman reacts by stopping traffic, running randomly into an office building, and then finally finding Marlon. Truman still doesn’t seem to have fully linked Lauren’s warning to the strange events he’s experiencing, but he uses the desire to find Lauren in FIji as a way to test whether he is being controlled or is paranoid and losing his mind. The act cleverly begins his quest by having Truman notice that in their wedding pictures, Meryl’s fingers are crossed, and then following her to work and witnessing the suspicious activities of Meryl assisting in a leg amputation. Thus, Truman’s desire and quest for Lauren is strengthened morally and plotwise by Truman’s (correct) suspicion that Meryl is in on the conspiracy. It’s worth noting, however, that I don’t think Truman’s quest to leave the island is his goal, partly because it’s not clear he really believes he’ll be allowed to leave, which leads to…
Observation #2: Act 3–Where in the World is Truman Burbank?
Act 3 starts with Truman seemingly not having figured anything out. After his aborted escape attempt with Meryl, he questions her violently, resulting in Marlon’s appearance with a six-pack (and her hilarious declaration, “How can anyone expect me to carry on under these conditions–it’s unprofessional!”). At their hang-out spot, Marlon implies that if Truman is living in a conspiracy then Marlon must be in on it too. The scene culminates in Marlon revealing that he’s found Truman’s father, and Truman seems genuinely moved by his father’s appearance. But the following events and the film’s structure cast this assumption in a different light.
As Truman hugs his father, we cut to a monitor view from the control room and see the director Cristof and crew celebrate the amazing TV moment they’ve orchestrated. The movie then takes an interesting turn; having the “Truman Show” transition into a behind the scenes interview with Cristof, complete with expository details of the show and a viewer call-in (that features Lauren/Sylvia). This, despite the fact that viewers now don’t get to see details of Truman and his father’s reunion. The sudden departure from Truman’s experiences is not coincidental. As it turns out, we don’t return to Truman until approximately nine minutes later, when Cristof caresses Truman’s sleeping face on the monitor in the studio. The next day, Truman seems to live as if nothing has changed (including his father’s sudden reappearance). But at the end of the day, as Truman sleeps, Cristof realizes something is off, and discovers his sleeping is a ruse. Marlon rushes over, but it’s too late–Truman is gone.
At this point, we must ask a few questions, and we notice some clever storytelling choices. Once Truman has disappeared, we realize that his “normal” day has not been normal–it’s all been an act. Furthermore, the previous 9-10 minutes were all behind the scenes in the studio. Meaning that the change that has precipitated Truman’s disappearance has been his failed escape, Meryl’s behavior, and yes, his conversation with Marlon and the revelation of his father. Once we understand this, it becomes clear that, in the end, Truman didn’t believe Marlon or his father’s appearance (perhaps he did in the moment, but certainly not upon reflection–which we don’t get to see).
With this realization, we understand the cleverness of the behind the scenes sequence. By switching alignment and leaving Truman, the movie accomplishes a number of goals. First, his disappearance is a surprise–we haven’t been witness to any of his planning. Second, the actual reunion with his father is off-screen, meaning that any potential doubts about his father are also hidden. Third, his goal of plotting his escape in secret would have had little potential for conflict, other than the threat of discovery, and would have potentially made for less compelling scenes. Fourth, the switch to Cristof and the exclusive interview gives us fun and important exposition in a way that fits into the ideas, themes, and structure of the movie.